Monday, April 24, 2017

Lopamudra Banerjee, author of 'Thwarted Escape: An Immigrant's Wayward Journey' speaks to A.K. Nanda

Author Lopamudra Banerjee

‘Thwarted Escape: An Immigrant’s Wayward Journey’, the debut memoir/ nonfiction novel by Lopamudra Banerjee (published by Authorspress, in October 2016) has recently received Honorary Mention at the Los Angeles Book Festival, 2017. A Journey Awards 2014 recipient, hosted by Chanticleer Reviews, the book which first took shape at the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Creative Nonfiction program, is best described as the author’s subtle, complex and organic journey, where she evolves from a small-town girl in India to a woman, reconnecting with her ancestral home, her emotionally fraught childhood and puberty, all the while looking for the meaning and essence of ‘home’. In conversation with the author, ace editor and scholar Mr. A.K. Nanda discusses her journey of writing and publishing the book, while delving into its theme, style, genre and other relevant areas.

A.K. Nanda: Hello Lopa. Congratulations on the publication of your book ‘Thwarted Escape’. When did you begin conceptualizing the book? Did you plan out the entire flow at the outset and then set about assimilating the pieces? Or did it develop brick by brick as you went along with its creation?

Lopamudra: In the preface of my book ‘Thwarted Escape’, I write: “Eight years ago, during an early fall afternoon, I was walking past the trees and green shrubs that stood between concrete buildings and their closely bolted doors, smelling the air, sand and soil of a graduate school that I had just stepped into. I had migrated with my husband to a part of Midwestern America which we had not seen or heard of until we decided to move there almost three years back. That very day, my pregnant mind was wandering, with the Midwestern winds and the dry, sweltering September heat, into the world of memories, crushed, brittle, yet resurfacing from unexpected nooks of my consciousness. It was in the crowded writing lab inside the bolted doors of one of those buildings that the seed of this book was sown.” This brief introduction kind of summarizes my complex and organic journey with the book. I did develop the book brick by brick, or word by word, as I went along this arduous, yet gratifying journey. I started out when I was in the third trimester of my first pregnancy, as it was then that the idea of carving a memoir in a letter form addressed to my unborn daughter struck me, spurred on by Dr. Lisa Knopp, my mentor of Creative Nonfiction at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. After my two daughters were born, and I went back and forth between traveling to India and the US, the idea of writing a diaspora and migration story reared its head stronger every day, and I trusted my instincts and plunged into it head-on.  As I have said in another interview too, initially there was no book, but only a number of disjointed narratives/personal essays where my pent up, calcified memories wreaked havoc in my mind. The book took shape when I realized that all of them could come together and take a novel-like curve. I am indebted to my mentors and my writing circle friends who have seen merit in the manuscript and inspired me to share my story with the world.

A.K. Nanda: What inspired you to write this book which made you unload many things that are intensely personal?

Lopamudra: During my tenure as a part time writer pursuing masters’ degree in English in the US with emphasis in Creative nonfiction, I came across this wonderful book, ‘Tell It Slant’, edited by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola, which had opened up whole new vistas of writing about one’s own self, while situating oneself at the core of his/her family, the microcosm, and the world, the greater window. Coming across the memoirs and essays of authors like Joan Didion, Jamaica Kincaid, Maya Angelou, Maxime Hong Kingston, Naomi Shihab Shye and Alice Walker, I was introduced to a treasure trove of their complex, intricate and mind-blowing emotional experiences where these women have bared it all, with élan, their volatile inner cosmos and their struggles within their society, culture, families, and within their own selves. While these women authors have cumulatively been my principal inspiration, I also was fascinated by this definition of a memoir by William Zinsser: “Good memoirs are a careful act of construction…memoir writers must manufacture a text, imposing narrative order on a jumble of half-remembered events.” In my case, while in the process of writing ‘Thwarted Escape’, I was seeking my own catharsis for varied reasons, I also was looking into ways that would make my own truthful stories about girlhood, womanhood, motherhood and my immigrant narratives resonate with the readers to illuminate their own lives and perceptions. And while starting with this ‘jumble of half-remembered events’, I did bare my soul and chisel myself as a narrator depicting some of the most excruciating, exhaustive and even some life-changing moments and
epiphanies in the book.  And yes, I did it, while situating myself at the core of my ‘home’, ‘family’, and the various particulars of my emotional landscape, which thankfully, have enabled me to give the narrative a perspective that perhaps would not have been possible if I had written an entirely fictional narrative. 

A.K. Nanda: You took two long years to contemplate leaving your home and parents for good but found yourself longing to return to the chaos and bickering of your parents’ home. How would you explain the absurdities of a Bengali household becoming so attractive?

Lopamudra: In an in-depth, analytic review of ‘Thwarted Escape’, published in Learning & Creativity e-mag, Shabir Ahmed Mir has reflected on the subtle, organic forces that are at work in the book in a very intriguing way. “Like all first-generation immigrants, she is torn between two worlds. There is always a nagging implicit guilt about a new world usurping her original ‘Home’: in reality and in memory. There is a subtle interplay and tension between these two identities: the Woman identity is the centrifugal one, pulling her away from her home and her society because that is the only way of breaking free from it; the Immigrant identity is the centripetal one that calls across the seas to her to come back to her filial obligations and ties, to the joy and love of her city.” He points out, very aptly. When I revisit my hometown and my childhood home, I return not only to the chaos and bickering, but also to filial ties and to my own volatile self strung like a marionette to those ties, to the passionate fervor and nostalgia of those pent up, calcified memories. Yes, it is a complex journey, after all.

A.K. Nanada: An immigrant is not a natural citizen of the country where he/she lives. Does it make any impact on you that you do not belong to the country you live?

Lopamudra: I do really find myself in a conscious as well as unconscious limbo every time I journey back and forth between my hometown Barrackpore, Kolkata and the various cities in the US in which I have had my moorings, Buffalo, Omaha and now Dallas, striving to strike roots in each of my adopted homes I have embraced. Hence the thought of writing this diaspora and migration story/memoir in which I seek the essence and meaning of ‘home’ and also my self- identity as a woman, a mother and a daughter, living ten thousand miles away from her Bengali hometown in the outskirts of Kolkata.

A.K. Nanda: To whom you are born is as important as where you are born – the climate, the culture, the pattern of living, the flora and fauna, etc. Do you think it is true?

Lopamudra: Yes, the filial ties, the family and the roots of an individual is without any doubt, an integral part of an individual’s persona. As for myself, it is unimaginable to think of my own existence without thinking of the elemental chaos, the sights, smells and sounds of the streets of my hometown, the quirky humor and idiosyncrasies of my parents, relatives, neighbors and my family, the river Ganges that flows at the heart of my hometown Barrackpore, the rickshaw puller that takes me back from the ‘ghat’ (banks) of the river to my parents’ home. All these and much more form an integral part of the narrative of my book, while all the time haunted by the nostalgia and the tyranny of memory even as I trudge along the manicured by lanes of my adopted home in the US.

A.K. Nanda: Does it occur to you that your remembering and returning time and again to your roots
despite everything – there is something you cannot run away from?

Lopamudra: Well, that, to me, is the basic premise behind writing this book, in the first place. ‘Thwarted Escape’, the name of my book is born out of the conscious yet subtle interplay of tension between moving away and returning, as I touch upon the metaphor of home and the act of subconsciously embracing the physical and emotional landscape of our birthplace, however much we evade it. It is also about a woman’s self-chosen exile in the US, the back story behind that exile and also the sense of oscillation that she feels in both the worlds. The moment she thinks she has assimilated in her adopted home, she disintegrates, in nostalgia and pain. When she revisits her hometown time and again, she realizes her volatile, passionate ongoing journey with her roots and the fact that she has not been able to break free from it at all.

A.K. Nanda: Your excellent use of imagery could have gone well in a long poem, describing your wayward journey rather than in a dry prose. Is there any special reason of choosing monologue prose form? Don’t you think a lot of lyrical charm of this wayward journey that could have been achieved in a poetry form sort of meanders away in prose?

Lopamudra: Well, if you have read the entire book, it is neatly divided into four sections;  on childhood, womanhood, motherhood, and the intersection between life and death, and apart from monologue prose form, for which my chief inspiration is the stream-of- consciousness way of storytelling, I do employ a lot of other literary devices, like double narrative (inspired by Natalie Sarraute’s autobiographical essays), adding real-life dialogues, letters which reflect some metaphorical truths I wanted to convey through the narrative journey, and also the literary journalism style of presenting some montages and memorabilia (as in the chapters ‘To Ravaged Nymphs’ and ‘Writing the Woman’s Life’). The narrator of the book is none other than my own alter-ego. It would have been nearly impossible for me to depict these complex nuances in a single long poem, and also, if I would have chosen a fictional narrative to represent it all, the emotions would not have been as raw, as palpable as it is in its nonfictional form. But yes, for the poetic prose, I am indebted to my reading of Sylvia Plath, Kamala Das, Katherine Mansfield, Virginia Woolf, and even, the contemporary essayists/novelists Annie Dillards, Naomi Shoaib Shye as these phenomenal women have taught me the value and essence of a ruminative, emotional journey, unfolding the deep, dark chambers of their souls. I hope thus, I have been able to engage the readers.

A.K. Nanda: Do you think it is possible to have the taste of freedom amid countless bondages?

Lopamudra: I would like to quote Virginia Woolf in answer to this: “There is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.” I have answered it in various layers, I guess, in the chapter ‘Writing The Woman’s Life’, and also in some other chapters where I reflect on what it means to be tied to the patriarchal society, culture, family, and what it means to break free of it, which has its very own nuances as well.

A.K. Nanda: Happiness is a state of mind, irrespective of what you are and where you are. When you live with integrity, your heart begins to fill with happiness as vast as the universe. Do you agree with this view?

Lopamudra: Dr. Seuss had once famously said: “Don't cry because it's over, smile because it happened.” As for my self-identity as a writer, I find the richest fiber of my soul when I look at my life, its crests and ridges, bumps and bolts enriched by the touchstone of love. Love that is profound and inexplicable, whether in human or familial ties, or love that is manifested in the way I embrace nature, gives me the impetus to live with integrity, and happiness stems from love.

A.K. Nanda: Fiction or biographies or even research-oriented books probably find buyers more easily that personal memoirs. What has been the reception to your book in your native country and your adopted country?

Lopamudra: Contrary to the clichéd assumptions, I would very much like to mention that memoirs, personal narratives or collections of personal essays have always found their niche, discerning audience and that precious books like ‘The Narrative of Frederick Douglas’, ‘I know Why The Caged Bird Sings’ by Maya Angelou, ‘Notes of a Native Son’ by James Baldwin, ‘The Year of Magical Thinking’ by Joan Didion, ‘Night’ by Elie Wiesel and also the personal essays of Virginia Woolf, including ‘A Room of One’s Own’ have earned their rightful places as classics in the estate of literature. Critically acclaimed international authors of the Indian Diaspora like Bharati Mukherjee, Pico Iyer, Bhanu Kapil Ryder have written and published personal narratives/essays. In recent times, we have seen the phenomenal success of Saroo Brierly’s memoir ‘A Long Way Home’, adapted as the award-winning film ‘Lion'. And there are many other instances, like The Motorcycle Diaries (based on The Motorcycle Diaries: Notes on a Latin American Journey by Che Guevara), Nick Flynn’s great memoir ‘Another Bullshit Night in Suck City’, ‘This Boy’s Life’ by Tobias Wolff, ‘The Diving Bell and the Butterfly’ (based on Jean-Dominique Bauby’s memoir), and the list goes on. So I would always say that rather than believing in water-tight genres and sub-genres fed by the publishing industry, and rather than focusing only on them, it should be the aim of every writer worth his/her salt to know his/her inner voice, to strive to carve it the best way possible, with honest, impactful storytelling. As a matter-of- fact, a memoir can very much be read as a 1st person narrative fiction, and a novel exploring the metaphorical truth of a character/characters can have autobiographical elements in it. What matters at the end is the journey that transpires in its pages.

As for ‘Thwarted Escape’, though I must admit it had been hard to find a publisher for it in the beginning, following its publication, the response has really been appreciative. The book has recently been placed as an Honorable Mention at the Los Angeles Book Festival 2017 (category: memoir/autobiography), and in 2014, the manuscript had been a Journey Awards recipient, hosted by Chanticleer Reviews and Media. Several renowned literary journals and magazines have featured the book, including the Setu International bilingual e-mag, Café Dissensus (New York-based journal), Different Truths e-zine, Women’s Web, and South Asian Times of Australia. Several readers have reviewed the book very positively in Amazon, Goodreads and Facebook, and have personally messaged me to say how they have been inspired by my autobiographical narratives. What more can I ask for my debut baby in paperback? I am truly thankful for the response it has garnered back at home and in the US, within five months of its release.

A.K. Nanda: What are you working on next?

Lopamudra: At the moment, there are several writing and editing projects in the pipeline, those are very close to my heart. Poetry is my life-blood, and my literary blog consists of more than 100 poems, out of which many are published in journals and anthologies both in India and in the US. I am currently working on editing my first solo poetry collection and also another work-in- progress is a short story collection, which I aim to publish sometime in 2017. I am also working on several other literary translations (Bengali to English), and also on the English translation of a very contemporary project, based on three actresses’ lives in modern day Mumbai. Also, my second book as a co-editor, a collection of spine-chilling eerie stories is in its final editing stage, and might see the light of the day soon.

About the Author

Lopamudra Banerjee is a writer, poet, editor and translator, currently based in Dallas, USA. She has a Masters’ degree with thesis in creative nonfiction writing from the Department of English, University of Nebraska at Omaha. She is the co-editor of the bestselling anthology on women, Defiant Dreams: Tales of Everyday Divas, published in collaboration with Readomania and Incredible Women of India. Thwarted Escape: An Immigrant's Wayward Journey, her debut memoir/nonfiction novel, published by Authorspress, has recently received Honorable Mention at the Los Angeles Book Festival 2017. The manuscript has also been a First Place Category Winner at the Journey Awards 2014 hosted by Chanticleer Reviews and Media LLC. Her literary works have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, both in India and the US. Her poetry has been published in The Significant Anthology, Umbilical Chords: An Anthology on Parents Remembered, Kaafiyaana, and her fiction is forthcoming in Silhouette I and II anthology, to be published by Authorspress. She has received the Reuel International Award 2016 (category: Translation) for her English translation of Rabindranath Tagore's novella Nastanirh (translated as The Broken Home) instituted by The Significant League, a renowned literature group in Facebook, and the book is available in Amazon Kindle.

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